Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Movie Review: Chappaquiddick

Chappaquiddick **** / *****
Directed by: John Curran.
Written by: Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan.
Starring: Jason Clarke (Ted Kennedy), Kate Mara (Mary Jo Kopechne), Ed Helms (Joe Gargan), Bruce Dern (Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.), Jim Gaffigan (Paul F. Markham), Taylor Nichols (Ted Sorensen), Clancy Brown (Robert McNamara), Lexie Roth (Nance Lyons), John Fiore (Chief Arena), Andria Blackman (Joan Bennett Kennedy), Tamara Hickey (Marilyn Richards), Alison Wachtler (Liz Trotta).
What really happened on Chappaquiddick on July 18, 1969 will never truly be known – only two people know the truth, and one of them died that night before they could tell it. The movie Chappaquiddick, is more interested in the other one – Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), the only surviving Kennedy brother at the time, who is probably going to run for President in 1972. That night, he and some friends held a “reunion” for the Boiler Room girls – young, single women who worked on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign up until he was assassinated, at a house owned by the Kennedys. Late that night, Ted and one of those women – Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) went for a drive. Eventually, Kennedy would take a wrong turn, and crash his car into a lake. He got out, and Mary Jo did not. He wouldn’t report the accident until the next morning. Some of the rescuers believe that had it been reported that night, they could have saved Mary Jo.
As a film, Chappaquiddick probably does the smart thing, and basically sticks to the facts that are known, and avoids most of the gossip. Kennedy’s excuse for not reporting the accident is that he had a concussion and was in a state of shock – and it wasn’t until the next morning that he realized what had happened, and then immediately called it in. The movie doesn’t really buy that story (no one really does) – nor does it buy Kennedy’s story that he swam back to the mainland that night. But for the most part, it avoids all the scandalous gossip about affairs and drinking, etc. that have swirled around the case in the decades since. In a very real way, it doesn’t need them.
As played by Jason Clarke, Ted Kennedy is pretty much the personification of privilege. He isn’t quite the Fredo of the family – but he is still the type of guy who at the age of 37 can say to his father – and mean it – that he wants to be a great man, but needs to figure out who he is first – even though at this point, he is a US Senator, and perhaps his party’s frontrunner for the Presidential nomination. Whether what happened was just a tragic accident, and Kennedy really did do nothing wrong or not, what becomes clear through the film is that Kennedy got away with something because he was a Kennedy. He was basically able to walk away from an accident that left someone dead and never get questioned about it. Most of the movie is devoted to why that is – that basically, because he was a Kennedy, Teddy had access to a war room of lawyers and PR people, and people who had all sort of connections who could basically get this all to go away.
As Kennedy, Jason Clarke delivers one of his best performances to date. He captures Kennedy – was affable and charming, but not as affable and charming as Jack, smart, but not as smart as Bobby. He still lives in fear of his father – Joe Sr. (Bruce Dern), although he’s now confined to a wheelchair, and can barely speak (his one word response to Teddy when he confesses what happened is “Alibi” – which tells you all you need to know about Joe Kennedy Sr.
I do wish that the film had find more time to make Mary Jo Kopechne more than just “the girl” in this film. Kate Mara is a fine actress, and she does a good job in this role, making the most of her few brief scenes, making Mary Jo sympathetic, smart and thoughtful (and not the person all that gossip made her out to be). Yet, when Chappaquiddick is brought up – even today – it’s mostly in relation to how it cost Teddy Kennedy the White House (he didn’t run in 1972 – but did run for the nomination in 1980, and lost – although he remained in the Senate until his death in 2009) – but it’s important to remember that she lost her life. This is basically the point that Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), a Kennedy cousin, and Teddy’s conscience in this movie, makes to him over and over – but is lost on Kennedy, who can only look at what this is going to do to him, and how he can get out of it. The film is a fascinating, disturbing look at privilege – which is why it’s still relevant nearly 50 years later.

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